According to the findings, reported Wednesday in the American journal PLOS One, the engravings, also called finger-flutings, predate the arrival of Homo sapiens to Western Europe.
The designs, while abstract, are “clearly deliberate” and make a “new and very significant contribution to our understanding of Neanderthal behavior,” according to the researchers.
“The layout of these non-figurative graphic entities is an organised, deliberate composition, and is the result of a thought process giving rise to conscious design and intent.”
The Roche-Cotard cave was discovered near Tours in central France in 1846 but remained largely inaccessible until 1912, when the site’s owner cleared silt that had blocked up the entrance over thousands of years.
Extensive archaeological excavations began in 2008, with dating techniques proving the engravings were made before the ancestors of modern humans are thought to have settled in the area.
“The engravings have been dated to over 57,000 years ago and, thanks to stratigraphy, probably to around 75,000 years ago, making this the oldest decorated cave in France, if not Europe,” the authors wrote in a separate press release.
Most of the images were traced by finger and “represent non-figurative designs”, according to a statement by France’s CNRS research institute and the University of Rennes, which participated in the research.
“Some are rather simple, with finger impacts surrounding a large fossil set in the rock or long lines over a large surface, while others are more elaborate,” they said.
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